Vivid flâneur novel! Johan Nivens, a filmmaker grown weary of working menial jobs in LA, enrolls in trucker training and takes to the roads of AmericaVivid flâneur novel! Johan Nivens, a filmmaker grown weary of working menial jobs in LA, enrolls in trucker training and takes to the roads of America in search of aliveness and truth.
The language is playful, skipping from inner dialogue to poetic evocations to plain descriptions, and does a stunning job of tying together the narrative with Johan's state of mind and the way he both grasps at his reality and lets it go/happen. There's real insight interspersed all through it and the imagery and characters have post-read persistence.
I enjoyed sharing Johan’s truckspace and appreciated his effort to remain not only physically healthy but also stay nice, letting the characters he meets along the way leave their mark.
Many scenes from the book leave an indelible print, whether it be a bunch of trucker trainees sitting on warm asphalt learning to meditate, or panicked drivers in a traffic jam as an approaching tornado looms on the horizon, or the intimate encounter with an alluring hitchhiker who accompanies him in his foray into Canada....more
It’s hard to find the common thread that links this collection of essays together. They’re all grounded in Jason Stoneking’s real-life experiences, anIt’s hard to find the common thread that links this collection of essays together. They’re all grounded in Jason Stoneking’s real-life experiences, and other than being written in a careful process that deliberately eschews any literary vehicle, or any esthetic crutch that he sees as ultimately manipulative, it’s really all over the place.
Maybe the author should have placed his ‘Essay about the Essay’ at the start. It’s a reminder of what the essay was meant to be when it was invented by Montaigne in the first place: an account of an intellectual wandering that occasionally gets back on track only when it strays too far from the original theme.
What a ride, though!
In ‘The Human Sacrifice at Peppideaux Bridge,’ there’s a hilarious account of the his humiliation in junior high school when he couldn’t identify the garbled song titles that the other students professed to enjoy, which waxes bitter when it becomes manifest that this is one of the experiences that took him out of the school system altogether.
It’s ultimately the reader’s gain though, as his atypical education and even more atypical life has taken him deep into fields where his insight proves invaluable. For instance, ‘The Howl Hat’ explores the contradictions and contradictions within the contradictions of branding a hat with the beatnik milestone poem’s title, ‘Howl’
Some of the essays can seem venomous at times, when he rails against widespread value systems, consumerism, complacent comfort. But he’s always his own harshest critic, unflaggingly examining his own life and values and his awareness of not always living in accord with them, and this establishes a trust that allows for following where his eye roams. And roam it does. ‘The Motion Trip’ gives a stunning insight into the LSD experience. ‘The Loop Trip’ is an amazing parallel between the intuition of universal cycles and the conclusions of modern physics.
‘The Nylon Tumbleweed’ is a beautiful real-life metaphor for the joy of drifting told through the filter of looking for a tent that the wind had carried off (incidentally, this one is so esthetically perfect that you have to question the professed goal of no-bells-and-whistles in the collection). I didn’t care for all the essays. ‘The Seriously Taken Notes of a Madman,’ for instance, rips some poor guy’s maybe not innocent but probably knee-jerk comment on what he might want to write about. ‘Schadenfreude Networking’ is a harsh look at a sentiment that I personally ascribe to human nature.
But when his tender side shows, it’s truly heartwarming. He writes with unabashed love about his friends in ‘The Pikeout’ and ‘Mentioning Lyell’. Or even about a total stranger whose apartment he inhabited following the man’s suicide in ‘Suicide and Marrowfat Peas.’
I won’t be following the advice of ‘Quit Your Fucking Job!’ anytime soon, but reading this book was a weird and amazing voyage. ...more
The narrative opens solipsistically in Michael August's morning work commute under heavy rain. His thoughts, focused on a grocery list, get derailed bThe narrative opens solipsistically in Michael August's morning work commute under heavy rain. His thoughts, focused on a grocery list, get derailed by the presence of a homeless beggar to whom he feels compelled to give away his umbrella. The act acquires a significance when it becomes apparent that giving away the umbrella becomes tantamount to giving up control over his life: Michael August gets lost. Lost in the London streets of a part of the city that he doesn't recognize, lost in his memories, lost in a reality in which fantasies lurking in the dark corners of hi subconscious suddenly intrude physically into his life. He befriends a dog, both a new attachment and the reminiscence of an old family dog.
The writing draws from magical realism and surrealism: it's not taking place in the the real world but it doesn't obey any implacable inner-mind logic either, floating as it does somewhere in between.
Michael August's excruciatingly (and, frankly, sometimes annoying) handicapping politeness prevents him from reaching out to passersby to get out of his predicament. The writing is imbued with tender indulgence for him, like M. Jones from the Bob Dylan song for whom 'something is happening here, but you're not quite sure what it is.'
The enigma that's laid out from the start is whether he's doing it all on purpose. Is he caving to some latent death wish or is it the exact opposite, a man who's been lost for years and finally wants to be found, to fall up, to give in to a life wish? It unfurls at a dreamlike pace, hinting at terrible appetites and unsuspected motives. As I neared the end of this read, I found that it didn't matter if Michael August was going toward something or running away from painful memories: his quest is the universal hunger for meaning.
There's also a backstory about the burgeoning love of an amateur artist for his model, which upends the notions of observer and observed, until the backstory flows into the main story and fits in a vital piece of the puzzle.
In the end, the story, moving incessantly back and forth in time to draw a picture that stands just out of time, resonates. We're all Michael August, or at least we've been this guy before. ...more
Murakami is a seasoned and dedicated runner, and draws many parallels from his joint universes of running and writing. In distance running, it’s imporMurakami is a seasoned and dedicated runner, and draws many parallels from his joint universes of running and writing. In distance running, it’s important to move forward, to find the pace that suits the distance, to avoid friction and unnecessary energy expenditure, find a rhythm and occupy the mind with music and daydreams to allay the monotony.
He seems to apply the same to his writing. The plot moves forward, the characters patiently pursue whatever is awaiting them in the barely-discernable distance, and bounce along avoiding getting hurt and keeping their heads level with the horizon. Then, toward the end, an all-out sprint that releases a cascade of adrenaline and it’s done. His plot is on a path from which he does not veer, his characters are always in character and self-coherent, there are no superfluous digressions, the whole is like a well-greased machine that glides forward, seemingly effortlessly.
The novel has two main characters: Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is a math teacher and writer, whose writing talent is stymied by some form of writer’s block until he does a rewrite of a strange girl Fuka-Eri’s story about mysterious Little People who enter this world to build air chrysalises, which may or may not be made up, who knows. Fuka-Eri asks questions that don’t end in audible question marks, which adds to her strangeness. Tengo has known Aomame from his school days and retains an intense memory of her, of the one time she held his hand and peered deeply into his eyes. Aomame is a martial arts instructor with a fetish for intense sex with middle-aged men with thinning hair that may be proxies for Murakami, who knows. She also dabbles in contract killing of abusive husbands, contracts given to her by a rich dowager who is referred to as the dowager, whose security by a burly gay man named Tamaru, who may be a contract killer himself, who knows.
This is how the plot moves forward: Tengo rewrites Fuka-Eri’s story and in the process is drawn closer to her, thus learning of her past in a a cultish organic farming institution called Sakigake. Aomame kills abusive husbands and is introduced to the women who have retreated from them, among which Tsubasa, who escaped from the Sakigake compound. Ramification point identified. Oh, and Aomame’s world is strangely different from our own, because the police carry berettas, not revolvers like she seems to remember, and by-the-way don’t look now but there are two moons in the sky just like, it is revealed, is the basis of Tengo’s novel.
I’ll admit I was bored during much of my reading of this novel, though the strangely familiar strange elements make up for it. I expected more grit, more dissonance and friction and pain. My main problem with it is that it’s a long and slow-paced read, but the various hints it sheds along the way, so many little promises, don’t deliver.
There’s not enough character evolution to justify such a long read. Not enough world buiding. The narrative doesn’t take us to the places where we want to go, the places we’re curious about. The depictions of the boiling perils turn into roadside puddles. The magical realism doesn’t seem necessary. The characters, initially well fleshed out, stagnate in their inital cast.
And so, having gotten through it, I can only turn to other potential readers and say, “Don’t bother.”...more
The story starts with Nazi memorabilia collectors before diving into 1936 and a 5-foot, 9-toed, gay Jewish boxer on his way to a world title match inThe story starts with Nazi memorabilia collectors before diving into 1936 and a 5-foot, 9-toed, gay Jewish boxer on his way to a world title match in New York, and his meeting with a fascist entomologist who is fascinated by his achievements in regard to his physical attributes.
This novel is a bizarre patchwork of genres. The action in the present is pretty funny, the main character and narrator suffering with trimethylaminuria, a condition that makes him urine-stinky to the point of not having a social life beyond the forums where he trades in his Nazi memorabilia. When the novel plunges into 1936, it becomes a historical reenactment of the upsurge of eugenics, applied Darwinism and British fascism. It is also a psychological portrait of two characters. First the Jewish boxer, his innate violence and the environment in which it allowed him to rise, and then the entomologist who in his headlong rush to acquire the boxer, doesn’t (or can’t) identify the true nature of his attachment to the boy. These different genres create breathing space from each other and add to the pace of the narrative as it unfolds and considerably complexifies, ultimately binding together the Darwinism, the eugenics, the insects and the fascism quite coherently....more
I bought this book after hearing the author read it - a performance that mixed the reading in with music and video - and being rather charmed at the wI bought this book after hearing the author read it - a performance that mixed the reading in with music and video - and being rather charmed at the way it was done.
The novel chronicles Johan's experience traveling from Colorado to Paris to Amsterdam, searching for a reason to stop, seeking solace and self-knowledge in a series of hasty and overlapping relationships. Reading it, I missed that the "abyss" to which the title refers is never defined or explained, and one can only suppose that it just means liking booze and hasty overlapping relationships a little too much. It makes the main character hard to sympathize with at first, his voyage of self-discovery being pretty much financed by generous, sedentary family members. But then, his candor and open-eyed appreciation of life, his occasional deep insights into the whole human carnival are refreshing and keep us on with him, choosing to follow as he jumps from place to place following an undeniable whim and thirst for revelation. Written in a brash, eager style that doesn't let go of any metaphor it snatches, no matter where it's been....more
This is a strange ghost story, as ghost stories go. The premise is a group of people who volunteer to spend time in the Hill House to study the hauntiThis is a strange ghost story, as ghost stories go. The premise is a group of people who volunteer to spend time in the Hill House to study the haunting phenomena from a scientific perspective. They’re initially strangers under Hill House roof and the relationships start off happily, buoyed by eagerness and excitement. The story is told from Eleanor’s point of view, coming from a sheltered and restrained life and who attempts to pass herself off as one of the cool kids. Theodora and Luke are actual, dyed-in-the-wool cool kids and the older doctor Dr. Montague is a cool father figure to all of them. As Eleanor strives for acceptance and to overcome her own internalized imposture syndrome, the group dynamic marginalizes her and she drifts between hope and resentment. Oh well, at least the House is her friend.
Thoroughly good read, quite touching at times, though the style is a little difficult to follow at times, flitting between the factual and metaphorical in keeping with Eleanor's inner turmoil....more
Set in Brazil, this is about a boy at odds with his strange and irresistible attraction to a haughty adoptive sister. Told in fragments, the setting fSet in Brazil, this is about a boy at odds with his strange and irresistible attraction to a haughty adoptive sister. Told in fragments, the setting flits from beach to the hotel where he lives with his activist mother whose political actions against the bauxite-producing local mines imperils her family, making her striking and strange daughter a target.
I was read excerpts from the novella at a public reading, and I must admit I got the gist of it all wrong, having been told beforehand that an Amazonian god played a central role in the story, I imagined that the excerpts were told from the god's perspective. Indeed, at many points in the story it could almost seem so, but on reading it throughout I interpret the disjointed style as the product of a young and troubled mind rather than the caprices of a supernatural being....more
Well, this book could really be titled "On Becoming a Novelist in America" because it's really US-centric. The rest of the world, for instance, won'tWell, this book could really be titled "On Becoming a Novelist in America" because it's really US-centric. The rest of the world, for instance, won't care that Iowa has a good creative writing program but that Stanford's is no slouch either. But that doesn't take anything away from it, a mix of craft guide, insider wisdom and above all the cumulative experience of the author's many years teaching creative writing in a university setting.
It's enlightening to read that creative writing teachers, while not exactly making it up as they go along, hold to a diverse set of values and goals, though he affirms that in the end it doesn't matter what values are used so long as the students are free to adopt or buck them. No values is bad values, because it leaves the student at the mercy of fashion and unending subjectivity. Any fledgling writer will want to pay close attention to the section that highlights the signs that you may be in a bad workshop.
I really enjoyed the author's take on the pithy one-liners that circulate in writing circles. For instance, "show, don't tell" isn't widely applicable at all, it only applies to describing emotions and internal states, or which basic adjectives are often wanting. "Write what you know" is another one that, while not debunked, gets a deeper treatment than it suggests. Theme is not all that’s it’s hyped either.
There's stuff to keep from it and anyone reading it will disregard certain aspects or passages, but the weight of experience in this work is apparent and enriching....more
Mankind has conquered Time Travel and a society of guardians, the Eternals, regulate human activity by small interventions that are calculated to optiMankind has conquered Time Travel and a society of guardians, the Eternals, regulate human activity by small interventions that are calculated to optimize human happiness in all the centuries in which man still exists. A member of the Eternals seeks to buck his responsibility to Eternity though, when his love for a Timer contravenes the Eternal's code of conduct.
There's a good deal of world-building in the opening chapters of this book, so much that I began to worry that that's all there was, but small flaws in the description of the utopia described through the regulating actions of the Eternals build up and lead to a richly layered narrative that flits between the love story, flimsy at first but steadily more believable, and the larger context of the relationship between the Timers and the Eternals, the politicking between the Eternals themselves, and the light shone on the small mysteries in the fabric of the curated universe as they converge and coalesce, becoming more gripping as the story moves into a conflict for the very survival of Eternity itself. Riveting read! ...more
There is a lot of mention of sorghum in this book. Sorghum is a grain, and a type of wine can be made of it. From early on in the novel, it weaves intThere is a lot of mention of sorghum in this book. Sorghum is a grain, and a type of wine can be made of it. From early on in the novel, it weaves into the narrative and enfolds the main characters together. After a while, you wonder how the narrative would hold if it weren’t for the sorghum, as a living embodiment of China’s Gaomi Township. If it weren’t for the sorghum, it’s hard to imagine what is keeping the story together, because it leaps across styles just as it leaps across a generation, encompassing the narrator’s grandparents and parents. It’s a country tale, then a love story, then a bandit tale, then a war epic, then a far-east western, then a martial arts story, then a mafia story, then a folk tale, back to love, then a fairy tale, and still it goes on with only the sorghum to bear witness as the narrator’s grandfather woos a small-footed woman promised to the wealthy and leprous son of a distillery owner. The distillery is for making Sorghum wine, and the narrator’s grandparents make a ‘special’ brew that draws instant fame in the surrounding area.
War looms large in the novel, the Gaomi armies fighting the Japanese almost as hard as they fight themselves. It lends the characters a heroism that draws their flaws into stark contrast and makes them relatable even as it seems they would be lost without the excesses that lead to their demise. An exciting, multi-faced and constantly transforming read....more
Brothers mostly fight out competition for their parents' love. They're forbidden from harming one another, but sometimes it's really, really hard to r Brothers mostly fight out competition for their parents' love. They're forbidden from harming one another, but sometimes it's really, really hard to respect that rule, especially when the sibling is acting all pure and disinterested and you know, you just know, that's it's all an act and they're doing it just to barb you.
This is a retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. It draws its strength by making the father an actual father, replacing the mother figure by a wise, bookish Chinese man, and making the original mother a psychopath and sexual manipulator. It takes a monster to reveal the characters' penchant for violence. There's a father monster one generation above, intent on sending his sons to war to assuage his ego as a military expert. Since he's the father of the father, one might posit that we're delving into the Greek myth of Chronos who eats his own children. Then there's the other monster, a psychopathic mother who abandons her children. Monsters do their job by reminding us how necessary it is to remain human and allow compassion and openness to guide us. ...more